A Farmer's Journey with Miscanthus: Part 1

July 27, 2020 6:12 PM
Blog Post

Growing up on his family’s farm, Steve Schomberg learned the importance of environmentalism by his father. Conservation and sustainability remained central to Steve’s life while he worked at the University of Illinois, which is where he first learned about miscanthus and its use as a biomass crop. When searching for a third, more environmentally diverse crop to grow on his farm, Steve decided to begin farming miscanthus for the University of Iowa Power Plant.

Iowa Farmer, Steve Schomberg with miscanthus field. Photo credit: Heaton Lab.

Thanks to the efforts of Steve and other local farmers, the University of Iowa is able to burn miscanthus instead of coal in their power plant. One acre of burned miscanthus produces the equivalent energy of four tons of coal. As an alternative to coal, miscanthus has a high carbon content and low mineral content resulting in a high energy potential. This high energy potential makes it a good option for sustainable and renewable energy and a great choice of biomass for the University of Iowa.

Miscanthus has proven to be highly effective when used for erosion control in fields to prevent soil leaching and at construction sites to prevent soil erosion. Erosion control socks at construction sites are stuffed with dried miscanthus. The socks are incredibly absorbent and will retain much of the rainwater. Once the miscanthus has absorbed the rainwater, the sock will become very heavy and difficult to move which keeps the neighboring soil in place. Additionally, miscanthus is woven into absorbent mats which are laid around construction sites. Miscanthus canes/stems do not decay as quickly as other grasses would if they were used for the same purposes. 

Steve was drawn to miscanthus because of several attributes, including the ability to grow on different soil types and very little nutrient application to retain high yields.  It takes about 5 years to maximize yields and should produce quality yields for 20 years. Unlike corn/soybean rotations, miscanthus fields have ground cover year-round to minimize soil leaching and erosion. In 2017, Steve decided to plant 15 acres of miscanthus as his own cash crop experiment. According to Steve, the initial risk has paid off with the returns over the last few years where miscanthus was sold for animal bedding and erosion control socks.

Steve is hopeful for the future of miscanthus and its uses as a biofuel, bedding, and erosion control. He believes energy companies that currently burn coal will eventually switch to burning miscanthus. He will continue to grow miscanthus and sell it for the use of bedding and erosion control. Eventually, he aims to grow up to 200 acres of his own miscanthus.

Product of ISU Biomass Undergrad Team